Learning From Nephi, Even Though He Irritates Me

Painting by Minerva Teichert

“Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” …Moroni speaking, Mormon 9:31

My dad used the Book of Mormon to teach me how to read.

I was 7, and had learned elementary level reading at school. Dad was working on his PhD. He was also teaching classes at Stanford and Berkeley, as well as teaching institute.

I had 5 siblings. So “Dad” time was rare.

I was looking forward to getting baptized. I expressed interest in the Book of Mormon. Dad said he would help me learn to read it.

He usually got home after my siblings and I were in bed. I would listen for him to come in the front door and start telling Mom about his day. Then I climbed out of bed, went into the kitchen with the paperback copy of the Book of Mormon, the blue one with the Angel Moroni on the cover. We would sit there together, in a quiet house, and read. No matter how long it took me to sound out the words, no matter how many times I would ask what something meant, Dad patiently taught me. No word or idea was dismissed as being too advanced for me.

When I did not like the way Nephi killed Laban, and I asked about why God would tell him to do that, or when I wondered about why God would curse people with a dark skin, Dad would share his own struggles with me. He helped me see that I never needed to believe God would do terrible things like that, even if someone like Nephi claimed it.

This was during the ‘60’s, and the time of many civil rights actions. When I would see coverage of people justifying discrimination in the name of God, sometimes from church leaders, I saw a connection with what I was reading about in this book of scripture.

I remember reading another part where God seemed to patiently keep trying to get people to forgive each other, and to help each other, even after they had done terrible things. I remember having a hard time reading the words, because I was crying. Maybe I wondered if this was a story about how God loves us even when we hurt each other.

When I read about God saying he would make it hard for people to hear or see his message, it started a long discussion with Dad. Why would God not want me to hear or see what he said? I remember Dad asking me to think about how each person might listen for a different message. Each person might have a different idea of what they think God is saying. It is easier to just let someone else tell you what God thinks. It is harder to keep listening and praying and learning for yourself what God might want you to know. He said this book had the stories of many people who were struggling with that. Since we are here to learn and choose, God wouldn’t stop us from wanting others to do our thinking for us, and God couldn’t force us to do the harder work of learning for ourselves. I can’t remember how long it took for that to sink in.

I didn’t realize at the time, or for years after, the difference those discussions made for me. Even when I would hear Nephi revered as a hero and great prophet, I always harbored feelings of irritation towards him. He seemed a bit arrogant, and very prideful. His problems were always someone else’s fault. He even blamed his own parents, and I thought they probably put up with a lot from him.

When I was a teen, it occurred to me that Nephi never mentioned much about his sisters, or his wife or daughters. He didn’t even name them! Moments of feminist fury added to my irritation. And I questioned his justification for murder and racism more and more.

I can’t remember how many times I had read the Psalm of Nephi (2 Nephi, chapter 4) before I really paid attention to it. Even with all of the things about Nephi that irritated me, this spoke of a person who was in a constant wrestle. This is how I felt, more often than I cared to admit.

After reading through the Book of Mormon a several times, I realized I did not need to admire any of the characters, or join in the hero worship I saw on occasion. The conversations about historical proof, or lack of it did not interest me. I can’t clearly point to a moment when I stopped wondering about some inherent truth to the book. But there was always some new insight, or awareness for me. I continued to read it over and over, in different ways and formats. And I learned something new each time.

Since I didn’t concern myself with hero worship, or needing to see Mormon characters as static beings who could do no wrong, and whose words came directly from God – I was able to find value in reading about their stories.

For me, this book is not meant to be an example of a perfect family on an ideal journey. This is a book of warning, telling tragic tales of families who killed each other off. Through it all, there are people who are trying to find their way to God.

Each time I read it, somewhere in there, if I look for it, I hear God’s voice.

“No matter who or where you are, I am with you. No matter how much you hate or love each other, you are mine. Please, take care of each other. You are mine. I am with you. I am you.”

I read Grant Hardy’s “Understanding The Book of Mormon” in 2011. It has informed my reading of all sacred text. It helped me see Nephi (and the other narrators, including Joseph) as a much more complex person. Learning more about him because of what he didn’t write (details of his failures and his parent’s likely disapproval), as much as what he wrote (a one-sided account of a heroic, almost martyr-like life) helped me see him as a human much like anyone.

Now, I read the Psalm of Nephi and I hear a man in his declining years cry out in pain, doubting himself, wondering if he ever got anything right, if he ever could be worthy of God’s love, afraid that in all his effort to prove himself, did he miss hearing the real message. Did he miss seeing the God that was right in front of him, while he frantically tried to cover up his failure to live up to his own idea of perfection? I hear a man hungering for the peace and healing of unconditional love, reflecting on his life where he put so many conditions on the love he offered.

I can relate.

Still, God is there.

Now, I pick this book up, and read…again. The format I choose now is the Reader’s Edition of The Book of Mormon, by Grant Hardy. Published by The Maxwell Institute.

I don’t feel any need to like, or admire, or prove, or agree with anything.

But I can learn. I learn from this epic human story.

Like all human stories, when I have eyes to see and ears to hear, I find God.

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8 Responses

  1. Allison says:

    Thank you for sharing that.

  2. Elisa says:

    Oh, thank you. This is so beautiful. I have also been irritated with Nephi (self-righteous and rigid) and reading Hardy’s book helped me understand him better too. And giving myself the liberty to believe that BoM or biblical authors/prophets might not always be unfiltered mouthpieces for God (just like modern day prophets are not unfiltered mouthpieces for God) has been helpful too.

  3. Eleanor says:

    Jody, what a coincidence! I gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting yesterday that contained some of these same messages…though I had to be somewhat subtle, and I didn’t dare to call out Nephi by name so none of the hero-worshippers in the congregation would have a heart attack. I have been through a similar transformation in my view of the Book of Mormon recently. Grant Hardy has helped me with that. After 40+ years of life, I feel like I’m finally stepping into my own agency….listening to what the Spirit (and some trusted scholars) tell me about the scriptures, instead of what the manual or the instructor tells me to think. I am finally free of trying to justify God’s racism, sexism, and violence. God is none of those things — but people sometimes are.

  4. SisterStacey says:

    I also struggle with Nephi. He never seems to struggle and he is pretty arrogant. This time reading I feel a kinship with Laman and Lemuel, two men trying to understand what is going on and why and having things explained to them by a younger brother. I had this happen to me over Christmas where my brother mansplained my faith crisis and my therapy to me. That was fun. So I wonder what all this looked like from them. For their family to be constantly doubting their faith based on their own viewpoint and what they see as Laman and Lemuel doing wrong.

  5. BeeCee says:

    I remember attending a class session at BYU (Spanish Literature) when the professor walked in and said, without preamble “Don’t you think Nephi is the most self-righteous of all the Book of Mormon prophets?!” Still makes me laugh whenever I start at those chapters again…

    Laman and Lemuel have long resonated more with me than Nephi does. I enjoy seeing the humanity in scriptural people, and love seeing how God loves imperfect people!

  6. Chiaroscuro says:

    Wow, you were taught a much more beautiful and nuanced version of scripture than I was. When I questioned as a child I was always told I just didn’t understand…And that it couldn’t be wrong, God wanted it that way. I think it would have been a lot easier for me to hang on to my faith if I had been taught in that way, instead of claiming it for myself.

  7. I am also often irritated by Nephi, but I am more uplifted by the text when I see him as an unreliable narrator, with biases, who made mistakes, rather than as a hero who we must assume was always right. We can learn from flawed people.

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